5 Essential Questions Your Fertility Clinic Needs to Answer at Your First Appointment

By Griffin Jones

"They treat this place like a baby factory. Doctors spend so little time with patients."

Factory. This is a word we hear very frequently when people are unhappy with their fertility centers. Do you feel like your fertility clinic is a factory? Do you see your doctor as much as you expected you would? Are your phone calls promptly returned? Do the staff remember your name? Now, some of these issues matter more to certain people than they do to others. Some people are perfectly happy with a "baby factory", provided that the factory produces a healthy baby. Some are really only concerned with the final result and less so with the process that leads to it. From a small group of patients I surveyed, slightly more than half would have preferred a doctor with an atrocious bedside manor but with exceptionally high success rates. The other half preferred  a personable, compassionate doctor whose success rates were well within the standard of care. Surveys conducted by Dr. Francisco Arredondo of RMA of Texas conclude the same. There is no right or wrong decision, so long as you are perfectly aware of the decision you're making.

IVF clinic as a baby factory

A baby factory may be exactly what you want. After all, the reason you're parting with ten, fifteen, or twenty thousand dollars of your own money is for the end-result. I recently spoke with someone who had all but decided on a very large clinic in her area. She wasn't thrilled with the group, but she understood the decision she was making. She was disappointed with the bedside manor of the staff, but as the largest fertility practice group in her area, she felt their labs were the absolute best. To me, her decision is sound. Like any personal decision, no one can judge it right or wrong as long as your objective is clear, you are aware of the pros and cons, and you fully accept the cons and risks in pursuit of your objective.

There's never a guarantee

I feel compelled to mention this because so many people have told me they were unaware that there is never a 100% probability of success for IVF. Some fertility groups have been blamed for leading you to think otherwise, but in many cases, the probability of not having a baby is higher than that of having one. The Society for Assisted Reproductive Medicine (SART) reports that the national average of IVF cycles resulting in live births for women under age 35, was forty percent in 2013. That percentage decreases with each successive age group. SART says that their data shouldn't be used to compare centers, but the site, Fertility Success Rates, uses SART data to demonstrate that the top clinic in the country has more than double the success rate of the national average. Extremely impressive, and still nearly a one in five chance that the cycle will not be successful. You have a right to know that. You're dealing with calculated probabilities and not certainty. It's your finances and your emotional energy. Everyone's personal condition is different, and your reproductive endocrinologist (RE) will be able to give you a better idea of your own probability of success. For some, a 5% chance of success might be worth the try; it completely depends on the personal needs of you and your partner. To inform your decision, here are five questions for your first appointment. 

1). How much time will you spend with your fertility doctor?

"You hardly ever see your actual doctor," is a very common complaint about larger fertility practice groups. Still, I read this criticism almost as frequently among smaller practices. Ask your clinic

  • Who will you be communicating with the majority of the time? 
    • The doctor?
    • The nurse?
    • The IVF coordinator?

It might be perfectly fine to spend most of your interactions with the IVF coordinator, but if you had been hoping to speak with your doctor, you should be prepared for that. REs are very busy people. None of them have an abundance of unallocated time. If I could invent something to sell to doctors, it would be any solution that somehow gave them back some of their time. Everyone wants your fertility doctor's time. You want it, because you want your concerns to be directly addressed. Their staff want it for guidance. I want it so I can move forward with their approval. Their families want it because REs are human beings too. Some may have more time to give you, and quite frankly, you've earned that time. Decide how important individual time with your physician is to you and ask how much of it you can expect.

2). How will your fertility practice communicate with you?

I help fertility centers manage their Facebook pages and Instagram accounts. Often, I see people using these channels to ask their clinics about their treatment protocol. The office can't answer these questions on social media because of privacy concerns. Still, it's clear that you might prefer speedy, electronic communication. Do you want to send an e-mail to your IVF coordinator or do you expect to be able to talk with your doctor over the phone? Some clinics use patient portals to communicate with their patients. You see many clinics with the eIVF logo on their website, for example. You can use the eIVF portal to communicate with your care team in a way that is convenient and concise. Patient portals like eIVF can be of great benefit to you when you want individual answers or easily accessible information. Just remember, the power of any tool depends on the person using it. How prompt/clear is your team is with their responses? 

3). When can you expect a response?

Lack of communication is one of the top complaints about fertility clinics.

  • "Barely return your phone calls/no communication",
  • "The IVF coordinator almost never returns my calls,"
  • "Bottom line--there was no sense of communication here".
Get to know your fertility doctor

These quotes come directly from negative fertility clinic reviews. You might be leaving a message on your practice's Facebook page because no one at the office returned your phone call. You will have a lot of questions during treatment. You might even pose your questions to the #infertility community on Instagram. It makes sense to hear from people who have went through similar experiences, but many times, people ask the #ttccommunity because they either haven't heard back from their doctor, or they don't feel like waiting for a response. Peer opinion can be helpful under certain circumstances, but you won't find specific medical advice on social media.

In general, communication is one of the greatest problem areas in all of healthcare. Fertility treatment is not exempt. Dr.  Arredondo recommends that physicians give patients a time frame that the doctor can realistically meet. This way, you will be pleased when your doctor gets back to you earlier than they said they would. It's clear that not all care teams do this, so you have to be your own advocate. Politely inform your practice upfront that prompt responses are very important to you, and you would like to know how long you should expect to wait for an answer.

4). How long did you have to wait?

I try to cut docs some slack here. Their time is constrained to the max and their attention is pulled in every direction. That doesn't make your time any less valuable, however, and some doctors seem to be inexcusably late. We can't hold REs to an unfair standard; we rarely if ever see our doctors at the very time of the appointment and this has been true since pediatric care. What you're really looking for here is how your doctor handles being late. Does he offer any explanation? If your doctor is late to your appointment because she spent a few extra minutes with a patient who really needed it, and she extends the same courtesy to you, I personally would accept that. If your doctor is forty-five minutes late in meeting with you and then rushes away without addressing all of your concerns, this office may be accepting too many new patients for their physician capacity.

5).where's the love?

High IVF success rates and wonderful bedside manner are not mutually exclusive. You may be able to find an extremely compassionate doctor and staff with outstanding success rates. On the other hand, you may find yourself in a situation where you have to prioritize one over the other. You can usually get an idea for for a staff's compassion from their online reviews. Some REs have mixed reviews and that can be very confusing. How can one person say a doctor is "very knowledgeable, compassionate and extremely kind" while another says "he doesn’t listen, interrupts and is very arrogant".  

My research on fertility clinic reviews suggests that positive reviews are three and a half time more likely to mention a baby or pregnancy than to make no mention at all. Equally, negative reviews are three times more likely to reference a lack of success than to make no mention at all. Nevertheless, there are REs with dozens of positive reviews and very few if any negative reviews. I have worked with some extremely compassionate REs and I will tell you, I rarely if ever read an ill word about them. Even in negative reviews if someone is dissatisfied with other staff members or billing, the reviews often start out "Dr. _____ is amazing, but...". These doctors don't boast IVF success rates of 100%, but they are better at setting the stage of your overall experience with communication and compassion. You will be able to tell from your first appointment if your doc falls into this category. 

you don't have to know it all

You don't know the answers to all of these questions yet; that's perfectly normal. How would you know what you prefer in your treatment relationship before you go through it? Don't fret if you don't have the answers. We don't know exactly what we want until we actually live the experience. No clinic has IVF success rates of 100% so there are other aspects to consider regarding the overall experience they provide. Understand that an initial consultation is not a commitment to treatment. Use that to your advantage. You shouldn't feel like you have to give someone $20,000 just because you already paid them $200 or $300. You are free to decide to go elsewhere if you really aren't comfortable after your first appointment. You are spending massive amounts of your money, emotional energy, and time. You are entitled to leverage them for the best possible experience for you. Consider what factors are most important to you when you go into your first appointment, and only move forward if the clinic has earned your selection...on your terms.